The formal definition of a project is: a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.*

Temporary, meaning projects have starts and finishes. They are finite in time.

Unique product or service, meaning they are not mass-produced or a frequently repeated action or process.

Categorizing something as a unique product or service is very subjective. The product or service may not seem unique because its approach to creating it may be consistent. But, due to the magnitude of the effort expended and time consumed, the end deliverable is still considered unique enough. This is definitely a gray area.

Getting away from the formal definition; In general, if ANY of the bottom three situations exist in your organization then you just might have a project.

  • “To Do” lists of 25 or more items related to a single effort
  • Two or more people working towards the same common purpose for a defined period of time
  • A concerted effort having three or more people with a vested interest in its achievement but not actually working in the effort

Work Within Organizations

OK, so now that we have covered the formal and general definition let’s get practical and talk about work within organizations. All organizations have two kinds of work: day-to-day and project work. Day-to-day work is what you do every day to support your organization’s purpose. It is the processing of sales orders, fielding customer service calls, producing widgets, maintaining equipment, processing accounts payable and receivables, reviewing contracts, designing ads and the like. This day-to-day work on average consumes over 70% of an organization’s employee time and effort. Using the formal and general definitions of a project as a backdrop we can now talk about project work. Lots of people don’t recognize any of their work as project work because they believe that they only exist in IT, Engineering, or R&D. This is not true. Listed below are some common projects that some may refer to as day-to-day work.


  • Six sigma
  • Office moves
  • Process Improvement


  • New product launches
  • Competitive analysis
  • Campaigns

Human Resources

  • Compensation analysis
  • Curriculum development
  • Employee satisfaction and engagement surveys


  • Preparing yearly budgets
  • Internal audits
  • Compliance issues


  • Sales conferences
  • Process training
  • Contest and prizes


  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Discovery and litigation
  • Developing case law database

Now let’s address the more readable apparent project work. These very special projects are almost always initiated to increase an organization’s productivity or quality. They are often organizational initiatives aimed at achieving specific company goals and very clearly fall within the unique and finite time characteristics of a project. Even though many of these efforts have existed for years in your organization, declaring them projects does not change their purpose in any way. But, it just may change your approach to managing them (although that’s a topic for another day).

So, now that we have answered the question “What is a Project?” and looked at project work within an organization, you may want to ask yourself if you are getting the work done and the results you want from your your projects. Go ahead, be bold. Results and project success matter, and frankly, they are the main reason why you are working on projects in the first place.

*This definition is taken from the Glossary of the Project Management Institute’s, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013.